Ulee's Gold

Nashville Scene

DIRECTED BY: Victor Nuņez

REVIEWED: 07-21-97

Ulee's Gold, the new drama by Victor Nunez, concerns a withdrawn, taciturn beekeeper named Ulysses "Ulee" Jackson, the kind of man who immerses himself in backbreaking labor to produce barrels of intoxicating tupelo honey--little of which we ever see him taste. A Vietnam vet who made it home by relying on his wits, Ulee has secluded himself and his granddaughters in a Florida glade after his wife's death. He doesn't seek the company of others, and he shuns the kindly sheriff who was once his friend.

In short, Ulee is a lot like Victor Nunez's movies: restrained, austere, distrustful of big displays of emotion. And in both cases you're surprised by how much you warm up to them. Since making his debut in 1979 with Gal Young 'Un, an engrossing adaptation of a Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings story, Nunez has made only a handful of films in his home state of Florida. But they share virtues of uncommon realism, perceptive detail, and a keen interest in the way people who are often overlooked by the movies live their lives--specifically when they're at work. Ulee's Gold, in addition to being a suspenseful mood piece, an involving family drama, and the barest hint of a love story, is also a damn fine movie about beekeeping.

In Nunez's movies, the catalyst is always the disruption of a routine; the resolution is often the formation of a new routine. And so Ulee's spartan life is upended by a call from his convict son, Jimmy, played by Tom Wood. Jimmy's junkie wife, Helen (Christine Dunford), is strung out with two of his former pals; Ulee's prodigal son wants him to rescue the daughter-in-law he's never loved. Ulee agrees, only to discover Jimmy's cohorts have an agenda of their own: the loot that Jimmy secretly stashed after a robbery.

Don't expect blazing guns and car chases from this synopsis. Nunez has drawn criticism for his slow-paced, didactic scripts and "uncinematic" moviemaking--the same charges reviewers always level at John Sayles. Nunez, who edits and photographs his films in addition to writing and directing them, lacks even Sayles' leavening streak of wise-guy humor and his hired-gun's commercial instincts. And yet he knows where the drama is hidden in so-called ordinary lives--in the accumulation of actions and reactions, the feelings people can't or won't express. As Ulee, a classic Western hero who wants no more part of killing, tries to figure a way out of his dilemma that doesn't require a gun, Nunez builds suspense and interest through his tight-lipped encounters with the few people in his life--especially the kind, cool-headed nurse (Patricia Richardson) who rents the cottage across the street.

A keeper Peter Fonda in Ulee's Gold. Photo by John Bramley.

The presence of Richardson, an appealing actress who genuinely looks and acts like a suburban neighbor--she has quietly stolen scenes for years as Tim Allen's wife on Home Improvement--typifies Nunez's knack for astute casting. So does Peter Fonda as Ulee, who brings the movie to life much the way Ashley Judd jolted a pulse into Nunez's Ruby in Paradise. In recent years Fonda has resurfaced in memorable wacko roles as a first-rate character actor, but here he's convincing as the sort of stern, close-mouthed, yet caring man of integrity his father played in late vehicles like On Golden Pond. There are only a couple of times when he takes a long pause because it seems like something an actor should do; for the most part, his performance is knowing and closely observed. When he drinks a glass of water, for example, he takes it in like parched soil soaking up rain.

There's a tendency, and a temptation, to overpraise Nunez's work because it is so cautious and humble. Ulee's Gold is pitched at the level of a Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation, and it's affecting for precisely the same unfashionable reasons: solid acting, attentive direction, a good story, and characters whose emotions seem plausible and real. Nevertheless, by the time Ulee is staring at a loaded gun and silently calculating how much of a chance he has to pull the trigger, the virtues of Victor Nunez's careful storytelling no longer seem so modest. We underestimate the filmmaker and his deceptively quiet hero. By the end of Ulee's Gold, they've both done us the great favor of taking us by surprise.

--Jim Ridley

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